Two gangs of uniformed men, while rushing to take a position in an ongoing battle, walk straight into each other. They immediately scramble and hide behind large rocks, just so they can engage in an erringly relaxed banter to establish which side of the war they are on. At another instance, a man wonders aloud whether mutton curry would be served in prison, and why it’d be crucial to help him clock 14 years behind bars.
These are rare moments when you sense director Abhishek Chaubey’s incredible ability to deploy humour to defuse the escalating tension around his main men. Set in the rustic maze in the Chambal valley, Sonchiriya uncovers the journey of a handful of men as they struggle to make sense of their world that suddenly crumbles when their leader is taken down. They begin to question their loyalties, and whether the path they’ve chosen is right.
Outlaws are good guys too, a battered woman announces multiple times, almost establishing the tone that Chaubey, working from a script he co-wrote with Sudip Sharma, is aiming for.
It’s how the ghosts of their past come back to haunt them, leaving them fighting for redemption. It’s deeply layered and packed with some sufficiently compelling performances, but the narrative, at two hours and 30 minutes, suffers due to some bumpy sketches.
It’s also heavily manipulative with scenes stacked to tug at our heartstrings. A little girl, battered and bruised at the hands of the rich and powerful, turns catalyst for the armed gang. And her caste just adds to the complication. While Chaubey doesn’t play out her violations to drill home the point, he leaves her crushed soul as proof of the brutality. She’s called Sonchiriya – to echo the elusive golden bird that the men are chasing after. Yet, her story appears dressed up.
Anuj Rakesh Dhawan's frames, while capturing the terrain delightfully also influences our emotions. A little girl is captured standing by a window, minutes after a bloody massacre, yet the swift movement of the camera is studied and hence, loses impact. There’s another conflict that involves a young boy who is unafraid to take down his mother, even though her morals appear intact. Yet, the showdown is unfortunately calculating.
The inglorious Bandit Queen also steps into the battlefront but Chaubey’s rendition lacks the power and depth that Shekhar Kapoor crafted in his magnum opus.
The dialect, while adding authenticity to the warfare, also slows things down. Manoj Bajpayee propels the film with his vibrant performance, but his limited screen time is damaging. Sushant Singh Rajput and Ranvir Shorey are both exceedingly impactful as his loyal aides, and manage to grasp their vulnerabilities with aplomb. You sense their pain, and their desire to find meaning and purpose to their crusade.
Ashutosh Rana is another stellar performer, who lends menace and grit to the man on the right side of the law. Bhumi Pednekar manages to hold her own, despite being restrained by gender politics.
Chaubey’s larger canvas, however, is reserved for caste - where no matter which side of the war you are on, it drags everyone into a vicious cycle of doom.